Can Vacant Industrial Districts Transform into Vibrant Neighborhoods?

From cities of the future to cultural neighborhoods, cities across the world are finding unique ways to reimagine abandoned industrial districts. In Kansas City, local activists gather to imagine a future for the city’s hotly debated West Bottoms district.

The dusty air hovers in the shadow of immense brick high rises. If not for the people filling the streets, you would not guess a place such as this could be so accommodating.

The rumble of freight trains coupled with the dissonance of roaring semi-trucks builds an atmosphere more fit for industrial labor than flocking pedestrians. Today though, like every first Friday of the month, this rough-around-the-edges neighborhood greets the presence of energetic shoppers.

An Industrial Past

The West Bottoms in Kansas City is a curious district. Situated on a low-lying floodplain between and below the two downtown skylines of Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS. It’s a district of contradicting identities.

Once the heart of a fledgling settlement along the Missouri River called the Town of Kansas, the West Bottoms quickly grew into an area defined by industry and debauchery, a hub of nightlife, bars, and clubs for crisscrossing travelers.

By the 20th century, with the rest of Kansas City expanding so rapidly, the West Bottoms transformed into a district of pure industrial might, the economic powerhouse of a growing metropolis. It did this through cows and trains.

Indeed, the Kansas City Stockyards was understood to be one of the most prominent in all of the US. At its peak, they processed millions of pounds of meat products annually for much of the Eastern United States.

Though the land within the West Bottoms is flat and suitable for construction, being located on a floodplain has one obvious drawback. Subsequent flood events battered the district until 1951, when the stockyards were effectively ended for good. Along with it went much of the industrial identity the district had so long worked to achieve.

Various efforts over the following decades attempted to revitalize the district with a new identity. In 1974, the opening of Kemper Arena, the city’s then-state-of-the-art concert and sports venue promised to bring back economic prosperity to the West Bottoms. But after the construction of the Sprint Center in Downtown Kansas City, MO, Kemper Arena fell into disuse, failing to garner any meaningful economic momentum during its three-decade run.

West Bottoms is not Alone

Today, the West Bottoms is an experiment of several new identities. During the city’s monthly First Friday events, the district blossoms into a hub for flea markets, antique shoppers, and local art. In the autumn months, old brick warehouses are transformed into elaborate haunted houses, drawing tourists from around the region.

Kemper Arena still stands. It, like the rest of the district has become the focus of public debate. It is a question between preserving the past and redefining the future; between cultivating the many grassroots businesses that call the West Bottoms home and formulating a strategy that will ensure the future vitality of the neighborhood.

As it turns out, this is not the first district to face this issue.

Across North America and indeed, across the western world, as cities began to shift economic focus to information and technology, industrial jobs were outsourced to less developed countries. In fact, many developed cities in the world face the issue of repurposing these old districts.

Granville Island, a peninsula (and former island) just south of downtown Vancouver, British Columbia finds its very geographic origin in industry. Originally a sandbar used by First Nations for fishing, the land was eventually filled in and prepared for waterside industrial development in 1915.

As heavy industry declined, businesses left Granville Island, leaving an opportunity to create a truly unique district in the heart of the city. In the 1970s, in partnership with the Canadian federal government, the island began a transformation in an eclectic community area populated by a huge public market, waterpark, a university, and dozens of unique shops and restaurants.

Granville Island in Vancouver, CA features artistically integrated industrial activity such as seen here at Ocean Concrete. Photo by Braden Anderson.

Perhaps most interesting though, is that industry did not entirely leave Granville Island. Today, several industrial companies call the area home including Ocean Concrete. Rather than a blight to the culture of the island, as one might expect a concrete company to be, Ocean has assimilated itself by painting artistic designs its towers, external machinery, and trucks.

In Hamburg, Germany, a colossal urban regeneration project is underway adjacent to the city’s port. This area, dubbed HafenCity, has long been an important aspect of Hamburg’s industrial machine along the Elbe River. However, as the European Union reduced the need for smaller free ports, the district was forced to reimagine itself.

Development continues to push progress in HafenCity, Hamburg, Germany. The Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic) can be seen in the background.

The result has been one of the most massive urban rebuilding projects in the world. An area roughly 2.2 square kilometers filled with old warehouses and industrial buildings is being converted to apartments, shops, offices, hotels, and restaurants. With an increased emphasis on sustainability and connectivity, HafenCity is growing into the model for redefining underused industrial spaces.

Birth of a Neighborhood

Already, progress is starting to swirl in the West Bottoms. Within just the last year, the district unveiled its first new residential development in the last century.

Additionally, Kemper Arena seems poised for a complete rebirth. After intense public debate, local developers will be moving forward with a project to re-energize the arena into a mixed-use youth sports facility. The building will act as a regional hub for community athletics as well as a local nucleus for a new budding community in the West Bottoms.

On the horizon looms even more residential development within the district’s impressive catalog of high-rise brick towers. This will only help cultivate the budding commercial landscape now driven by locally-owned restaurants and retailers.

However, though the West Bottoms has early momentum, it, like so many other industrial districts, will need a cohesive plan fueled by imagination and intuition. The district faces many challenges ahead including sub-par infrastructural amenities for residents, incorporating the existing industrial activity, and bridging the state-line which bisects the district.

A Convergence of Ideas

On September 2nd, 2016, a group of diverse urban enthusiasts showcased ideas to reimagine the West Bottoms. The event, called Show and Tell, attracted artists, geographers, writers, urban planners, and designers as a way to collectively brainstorm the future of the West Bottoms and to try to see the district through a new lens.

Ideas stretched far and wide. From converting dead space beneath the 12th st viaduct to shops to reclaiming forlorn tracts for nature areas. There were even human-sized wood sculptures representing buildings of the West Bottoms that visitors could freely manipulate. Ideas ranged from the exciting and the feasible to the fantastical and inspired.

The Atlas Lens team also participated in the showcase with a proposal to transform an abandoned streetcar tunnel into a mixed-use bike and pedestrian path, acting as a portal between Downtown and the West Bottoms. For full details on the proposal, click here.

The event was a tremendous success. With an estimated more than 600 attendees and almost a dozen project displays, the showcase continued the fire of West Bottoms discussion.

Though the future for the West Bottoms may not be crystal clear, it has something far more important on its side: an impassioned group of citizens who care.

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